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The Numinous Experience in Games

by Taekwan Kim on 11/23/12 07:54:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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This post is a response of sorts to Hey Baby, Do You Dyad? A Letter Series.

A couple months back I started (like many of us) playing DayZ. It happened that an acquaintance of mine came by to check out what I was playing, and, sure enough, there I was doing this ridiculous crawling around on the ground at an agonizing pace. He watched for a while. “So what do you actually do in this game?” “Um. Crawl around. Or run away. But mostly crawl. And die. Or crawl some more.” It just didn’t make sense to the guy. And to explain why it was tense, why the crawling was worth it, was something I honestly couldn’t be bothered to do (he’s a fan of Madden, if that says anything [no offense, Madden fans!]).

But the tension of DayZ is a useful thing to consider. One of my first posts on this blog was an argument that all gameplay is Socratic—that no position is taken without personal stakes, and that, as such, all gameplay is a test of the person himself. A game is meaningless if there is nothing to lose. While obstacles might make a game, it is investment in the stakes of failing those obstacles that makes gameplay (or, makes a game play).

One might argue that games exist that are purely (though usually, only nearly purely) creative. But even then, it is the player’s creativity that consequently becomes the stakes—how creative the player can be within the confines of the game (consider Curiosity), and how “worthy” his creations are (consider Minecraft).

The appearance of something like Mortal Combain or even DayZ Bounty is only inevitable, and no one would claim that Garry’s Mod itself is a game, though it can be, with self imposed rules. And creating content to face the test of public opinion can feel gamey, in the same way that multiplayer can elevate an otherwise dull experience by raising the stakes through increased visibility and decreased impersonality.

Anyway, the point is that invested gameplay is deeply personal, or more accurately, that being deeply personal is what creates investment. The decision to really play a game is actually a decision to allow ourselves to become involved at that level. This places it within orbit of the numinous (more on that term in a bit).

Paradoxically, when the stakes are so high, refutation can bring out aspects of ourselves which we would normally disassociate with our person. This, indeed, was the point of the Socratic dialogues: to clarify and reveal unconscious assumptions and repressed contradictions. (Ms. Alexander’s thought-journey from “Wait, I started this conversation being unsure if I liked Dyad” to “being sure that I hate it?" is rather apropos.) To rephrase, the goal of the Socratic method was to reach a deeper truth or Knowledge through dialectical interaction—to draw out the person we would normally disassociate ourselves with and throw it back at our faces.

This is where I would like to bring in Carl Jung and some of his concepts, one of them being numinosity.

To begin, consider: the mind operates whether we are conscious of its operations or not. This is to say that much psychological activity is unconscious; they lie outside the scope of visibility in the moment. The Self (capital S) as Jung conceived it, then, is the entirety of both unconscious and conscious thought, as opposed to the ego (lower s self) which only contains the conscious.

What we bring to the table when we put our person at stake is usually the ego. When I say gameplay is a test of the person, though, I mean to say that it brings out the Self by throwing the ego back at our faces.

My opinion is that the Self as conceived by Jung is essentially the same thing de facto as the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, or Platonic Knowledge, or any other similar religious idea of a life/wisdom giving, pre-existing internality and source. The idea with these is that “true life” or understanding does not begin until the self gives way to the Self, until the ego is able to relinquish control to a wider perspective.

We actually see this a lot in games. Let me, as an example, reproduce Mr. Smith’s description of Wipeout from the letter exchange:

When you start that game, in the Venom or Flash speed classes, you're playing a racer. Dragging your ship's momentous frame around a track, eyeing each corner nervously. But as you move up to Rapier class, Phantom class and beyond, or experiment with the nauseous joy of Zone Mode, you literally cannot react fast enough. You have to operate on instinct and muscle memory, entering a zen state which -- when you realize you're doing it -- is a breathtaking rush.

This is basically an exact description of a numinous experience, and it’s no surprise that the term “zen state” is used. I would argue that it’s also no coincidence that Ms. Alexander was reminded of her experience with LSD (and I don’t believe it’s entirely a result of the visuals alone). Much of the most thrilling—indeed, numinous—moments in games are those of examining-experiencing oneself performing actions that amaze even the performing player, or which seemingly happen of their own accord. This begins to approach why it can be so difficult to explain gameplay experiences—a great deal of it is actually unconscious interaction.

So I keep mentioning this “numinous” thing. What the heck does that even mean? In my understanding, numinosity is more or less the same thing as Self fulfillment. This from the Jung Lexicon:

Descriptive of persons, things or situations having a deep emotional resonance, psychologically associated with experiences of the Self.

Numinous, like numinosity, comes from Latin numinosum, referring to a dynamic agency or effect independent of the conscious will.

Jung maintained that psychological health practically required an appreciation for the numinous. That we needed to appreciate the reality that much psychological activity occurs outside of conscious thought, and that our actions can’t be fully understood unless we account for that. (In this sense, Mr. Smith’s questioning of whether Ms. Alexander’s enjoyment of Twilight isn’t due to an ‘unconscionable’ emotional attachment instead of intellectual curiosity, and whether ‘irony’ [intellectual distancing] was being used as a defense mechanism, wasn’t all that out of place, even if it was inaccurate.)

And this is what makes gameplay so worthwhile. It is an examination of the self through interaction with the Self, a dialectic that often constructively brings the unconscious into view—or at least, causes a recognition that it is there (again, meta-cognition!). And Mr. Smith’s enjoyment of Dyad? Well, I would venture to reword and repeat his conclusion: it is meaningful to him because it defies conscious thought.

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